Iowans say Army Corps is endangering lives

Read the original article by Donnelle Eller at desmoinesregister.com here.

Standing at the edge of the receding Missouri River, Leo Ettleman, Pat Sheldon and Mike Payne point out the tops of grain bins, barns and homes — the few signs that mark their farms, still under water and likely to be for days.

Frustrated, the men say the U.S. Corps of Engineers is mismanaging the Missouri River, making worse a flood that Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds says has caused $1.6 billion in damage, a figure that’s likely to grow as families return to water-soaked homes and communities.

Ettleman, Sheldon and Payne are part of a lawsuit that claims flood control is no longer the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ top priority. Instead, they say, the agency is focused on slowing the river and restoring habitat that protects the endangered pallid sturgeon and shorebirds like the piping plover and interior least tern.

“This recurring flooding has got to stop,” Ettleman said. “It’s jeopardizing hundreds of lives. … The Corps is putting the pallid sturgeon above people.”

Larry Pace, an Omaha firefighter, poses for a portrait at the edge of a flooded road near Sidney with his dog Duke as he looks toward his home on Friday, March 22, 2019. Pace slept in his truck the first four days after the flood as he waited for the waters to recede so he could return home.

Floodwaters drown farmland near Sidney

A federal judge last year mostly agreed with the nearly 400 Missouri River farmers, landowners and businesses, finding that the Corps’ changes since 2004 have caused or contributed to some of the worst flooding in the river’s history.

The court next will consider whether residents in six states should be reimbursed for five years of flood damages, estimated at $300 million.

The Corps declined to comment on its management, saying the lawsuit is still in litigation.

Environmentalists say flooding from tributaries below the agency’s controlled dams caused the bulk of this year’s disaster, not actions to protect endangered species. If the Missouri is mismanaged, it’s because the Corps prioritizes barge traffic, they say.

Environmentalists blame man’s work to narrow and contain the Missouri River for the repeated flooding, especially in light of climate change’s more extreme weather events. Rapid snowmelt combined with heavy spring rain contributed to this month’s historic deluge.

“The losses are heartbreaking,” said Paul Lepisto, the Izaak Walton League of America’s regional conservation coordinator, who works on issues in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.

“But history has proven that you can’t build a levee system high enough or strong enough that the Missouri River won’t find a way to break out of,” he said.

A field outside Sidney is half-submerged in floodwaters on Friday, March 22, 2019.

A field outside Sidney is half-submerged in floodwaters on Friday, March 22, 2019. (Photo: Anna Spoerre)

“We’ve got to give the river more room to roam … and reconnect it to the floodplain,” Lepisto said. “The more we try to tame it, the more it rebels.”

Even with the recent court decision, Ettleman said the Corps has done nothing to change its management policies.

If anything, they complain the Corps failed to provide them with important information about flooding levels as waters rose this month, leaving it to local levee managers and emergency officials to assess the danger.

“The Corps left us to die,” Ettleman said.

Gaining lawmakers’ support has been difficult in the past, he said. “Nobody wants to be seen as not supporting endangered species.”

But this year’s catastrophic flooding may be enough to sway Congress to support changes to the river’s management, said Ettleman, who is meeting frequently with congressional leaders who come to tour the flood area.

Until then, families along the Missouri are suffering, still struggling to recover “financially and emotionally” from the massive 2011 flood. “Now, their homes are destroyed again,” he said, with many escaping in the middle of the night “without even a toothbrush.”

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds takes leave of Vice President Mike Pence in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, March 19, 2019, after they toured by helicopter areas flooded by the Missouri River.

Vice President Mike Pence tours Midwest flooding with Gov. Kim Reynolds

‘The losses are extreme’

There’s little doubt the federal government’s efforts to rein in the Missouri River — by narrowing the river and deepening the channel — have hurt wildlife over nearly eight decades.

“The Corps’ actions are estimated to have led to the destruction of vast numbers of acreage of Missouri River Basin fish and wildlife habitat, as well as the interruption of breeding cues,” Senior Judge Nancy Firestone wrote in her 2018 ruling that called into question the Corps’ water management practices.

Of 67 native Missouri River fish species, 51 are listed as rare, uncommon or decreasing in number, she wrote. The Corps’ actions also have interfered with bird habitat.

“Something is wrong if a native species is not reproducing in an environment it’s lived in for millions of years, in the case of the pallid sturgeon,” said Lepisto, from the Izaak Walton League.

A flock of snow geese fly over flooded fields outside Sidney on Friday, March 22, 2019.

A flock of snow geese fly over flooded fields outside Sidney on Friday, March 22, 2019. (Photo: Anna Spoerre)

“The losses are extreme,” he said, pointing to 522,000 acres of habitat eliminated from Sioux City to St. Louis. “Not only for the piping plover, least tern and pallid sturgeon, but for all other wildlife that used to call the lower Missouri home.”

“It greatly altered the ecosystem,” Lepisto said.

The Missouri River was historically one of the widest, slowest-moving rivers in North America, he said. But the Corps has narrowed and deepened the channel, using rip-rapped banks and wing-dikes that “self-scour” the bottom, a must for barge traffic.

“It used to be miles wide,” Lepisto said. “Now they’ve strait-jacketed it down to about 600 feet wide.”

Much of the lost wildlife habitat was shifted to row-cropping. In the 1940s, Congress wanted families to settle the fertile valley without fear of flooding, families in the lawsuit said.

That worked for decades until environmental lawsuits forced the Corps to make protection of endangered species a higher priority, the lawsuit contends.

The Corps initially warned that managing for wildlife recovery could increase flooding, but it acquiesced in 2004, Firestone’s opinion says.

The Endangered Species Act became “a hammer,” forcing Corps changes, Ettleman said. Among them: The Corps restored some side-channel chutes from the main river that create shallow backwater habitat.

The Corps’ actions “had the effect of raising the Missouri River surface elevations in periods of high flows,” Firestone said, agreeing with residents that repeated flooding resulted in an unconstitutional taking of residents’ land.

However, the judge excluded 2011 damages, saying the Corps didn’t release water to help threatened and endangered species, and ruling instead that record snowpack and rain had overwhelmed the system in that year’s massive flood.

The entire city of Pacific Junction is underwater as floodwater from the Missouri and Platte Rivers inundate the town, on Monday, March 18, 2019, in Mills County. The city was evacuated overnight as the water continued to rise.

Western Iowa flooding from above

‘Corps isn’t doing enough to protect for endangered species’

Marian Maas, a Nebraska Wildlife Federation board member, said the lawsuit’s claim that the Missouri River has been managed for the benefit of endangered species is “rubbish.”

“That’s a joke,” she said. “If you polled most environmental groups, they’d say it’s exactly the opposite — the Corps isn’t doing enough to protect for endangered species.”

The piping plover and the least tern are showing signs of recovery on the Missouri, but the pallid sturgeon still struggles, environmentalists say.

Maas and others say the river is managed for the benefit of barges. The Missouri River has limited barge traffic. Most goods are moved along the Mississippi River, which the Missouri provides flow to, they say.

A tank near Sidney is half-obscured with floodwater on Friday, March 22, 2019.

A tank near Sidney is half-obscured with floodwater on Friday, March 22, 2019. (Photo: Anna Spoerre)

“It’s like building a 25-lane wide interstate for 735 miles that virtually nobody uses,” said Jim Becic, environmental coordinator of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.

Maas believes the Corps should re-examine the Missouri River’s primary management, eliminating or reducing navigation as a priority, and return more of it to its natural flow, buying land to rebuild wetlands, oxbows and other “green infrastructure” that can reduce flooding.

It would be less expensive to pay landowners a fair price to expand the floodplain than to rebuild levees, homes and businesses, and to pay farmers for crop losses through insurance, Maas said.

And it’s not just talk for Maas: After the 2011 flood, she and her husband agreed to let the Corps move the levee back from the river on her Iowa farm, where her family has established a place for wounded veterans to heal by reconnecting with nature.

If others followed suit, and the Corps reduced upstream reservoir levels for recreation and made other management changes, Maas believes Missouri River flooding would happen significantly less often.

In addition to recreation, flood, wildlife and navigation, the Corps manages the river irrigation, hydropower, water supply and water quality.

“One way or another, it’s going to cost the nation a lot of money,” said Maas, whose veterans’ retreat is again underwater.

Izaak Walton’s Lepisto said U.S. taxpayers eventually will “demand that something is done, so they don’t have to pay the same people and property owners year after year.

“People who are impacted almost annually shouldn’t have to go through the heartache and the headache,” he said. “We need to equitably solve this issue.”

‘We shouldn’t have to leave. We own what’s here.’

Ettleman, Sheldon and Payne say their families have farmed the Missouri riverbottom for decades, and they have no plans to ever sell to the Corps.

“I love this land. It’s where I’m from. It’s who I am. I know what it can be and is. … I don’t know anything else,” said Sheldon, who rebuilt his family’s home after the 2011 flood, this time a few feet higher.

“We shouldn’t have to leave. We own what’s here,” he said. “Just because someone wants it, we shouldn’t have to sell it — or put us in bankruptcy.”

The Corps has purchased nearly 57,000 acres since 2009, but was given authority to buy nearly 167,000 acres from willing sellers.

Sheldon said he farmed some of that land. “It was bought from under me. I didn’t even have a chance to make an offer,” said Sheldon, rarely far from his dog, Butch, a miniature American shepherd.

Leo Ettleman and Pat Sheldon look out at miles of flooded farmland from a tall vantage point at Waubonsie State Park in Hamburg on Friday, March 22, 2019.
The two farmers are among almost 400 plaintiffs in a lawsuit that claims flood control is no longer the U.S. Corps of Engineers' top priority.

Leo Ettleman and Pat Sheldon look out at miles of flooded farmland from a tall vantage point at Waubonsie State Park in Hamburg on Friday, March 22, 2019. The two farmers are among almost 400 plaintiffs in a lawsuit that claims flood control is no longer the U.S. Corps of Engineers’ top priority. (Photo: Anna Spoerre)

The men worry repeated flooding will force families to leave, especially in hard-hit small towns such as Bartlett, McPaul and Percival. “Flood after flood after flood, they’re creating willing sellers,” Sheldon said.

“They’re creating vulnerable sellers,” Ettleman said. “They want this riverbottom.”

Every flood cuts the number of kids going to school and homeowners paying taxes and degrades farmland value.

The men had to use bulldozers to move mountains of sand from their land in 2011. They’ll likely need to do so again, given the severity of this year’s flood.

Farms are still scarred with holes created from the water in 2011. “We’ve lost up to 3 feet of our topsoil,” Ettleman said.

The threat to rural Iowa is catching the attention of U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and other lawmakers.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, too, questions the Corps’ management decisions.

“It seems to me that misguided decisions and misplaced priorities have eclipsed common sense,” Grassley said on the Senate floor last week. “The No. 1 priority of the Corps should be flood control. Period.”

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